BIRDING BY HINDSIGHT: A Second Look at Second Looks (Part Two)
You might recall Part One of this installment was in the Summer 2010 issue of The Loon – an attempt to correct, update, and clarify those erroneous, obsolete, and ambiguous statements which have appeared over the years in previous "Birding By Hindsight" essays. And it seems I've been wrong, behind the times, and vague more than I'd care to admit, so that not everything would fit in a single article.
The previous article made it through the 1990s. So, let's see how much I need to clean up my act in the present millennium.
• A Second Look at Sparrows (http://mbwbirds.com/sparrows.html)
The similarity of non-adult Swamp Sparrows to Lincoln's Sparrows may have been mentioned in this article, but I neglected to comment on how some could easily be mistaken for American Tree Sparrows. In recent years I've begun to notice some Swamps (even apparent adults) with an actual, well-defined smudge or spot in the center of the breast, which might naturally lead to misidentifications.
Erroneous American Tree Sparrow reports can result as well from other sparrows showing apparent breast spots which prove to actually be just a shadowy artifact of feathers in disarray. One recent example of this was a Chipping Sparrow lingering at a Bloomington feeder in November 2010. Its photos posted on MOU-net showed something that appeared to be a breast spot – but wasn't – and led some to misidentify it. Disconcertingly, even a bird bander was one of those misled by this phantom spot, even though other features on this bird were inconsistent with American Tree Sparrow.
Discussion of this "spotlessly" plumaged bird also included comments on its bill color, another point not mentioned in the sparrow article. Depending on the angle, the bill looked somewhat bi-colored and vaguely tree sparrow-like, but it was essentially pale overall and almost pinkish. Such color is normal for juvenile and immature Chippings (and Clay-coloreds), by the way, enough so to possibly mistake them for Field Sparrows.
• A Second Look at MORC (Part 2) (http://mbwbirds.com/mourc-ii.html)
Years ago, your beloved MOU records committee (MOURC) may have had a slightly different name and acronym, but, contrary to popular belief, MORC did not stand for Mean Old Rejection Committee. Indeed, as Shakespeare famously wrote, a records committee by any other name would smell as sweet – or something like that. Anyway, as this article discussed, some species more than others have a tendency to involve misidentifications: i.e., those with the longest history of unsuccessful documentations in MORC/MOURC's files.
Gyrfalcon and Prairie Falcon were two of those birds presenting frequent ID difficulties, with Northern Goshawks named as most easily mistaken for Gyrs, while richardsonii Merlins, tundrius Peregrines, and even Northern Harriers were likely sources of incorrect Prairie Falcon reports. However, other culprits should have been included in the discussion, since large falcons sometimes escape from falconers, these raptors can be similar in appearance, and some of them are unfamiliar Old World species or hybrids of uncertain parentage bred in captivity.
Perhaps the best example of such ID confusion was a bird at Park Point in Duluth in fall of 2007 initially thought to be a Gyrfalcon, except it looked a bit too small. It eventually proved to be an escaped falconer's bird and a hybrid, with Saker Falcon (Falco cherrug) – a Eurasian species – involved in its ancestry.
• A Second Look at Hindsight (http://mbwbirds.com/hindsight.html)
For a refreshing change, there were no real erroneous or nebulous statements in this nine-year-old installment about the accuracy of bird IDs made from memory. But it is mentioned here because some present-day readers may not have seen it then, and it's well worth rereading for those who did. Arguably, it addressed one of the most intriguing and significant issues ever discussed in this Hindsight series.
It was a review of the article "Under Suspicion", a January 8, 2001 piece in The New Yorker which was not about birds, but the criminal justice system. It discussed the inherent inaccuracies of trial testimonies, crime-scene eyewitness, choosing suspects from mug shots and line-ups, and that multiple witnesses and those with high confidence levels did not ensure accuracy. But the parallels with the bird identification process were remarkably striking and disturbing.
If you can access The New Yorker at the library, on-line, or elsewhere, "Under Suspicion" is well worth looking up.
• A Second Look at Field Notes (Part 3) (http://mbwbirds.com/field-notes-iii.html)
One of my notebook entries involved some Great-tailed Grackles studied in Rock County in May 2003 which appeared disturbingly dark-eyed, thus suggesting Boat-tailed Grackles. At the time I was unsure what was going on – I knew that grackles can have dark eyes as juveniles, but this wasn't late summer or fall. But in case you missed it, the Hindsight article on blackbirds six years later (The Loon 81:43-47) solved the mystery. As mentioned in the Sibley field guide, while juvenile Great-taileds are normally pale-eyed by fall, some can show dark eyes through the following spring.
• A Second Look at Splitting (http://mbwbirds.com/splitting.html)
The subject here was species on the current and potential Minnesota list which The Sibley Guide to Birds shows with more than one distinct population, and thus would seem possible candidates for splitting. But sometimes change takes time. Six years later, only one of the 68 birds listed has been split so far: Pacific Wren and Winter Wren. Actually, however, there was another potential split which is now a reality: Mexican Whip-poor-will and Eastern Whip-poor-will. I had been well aware of this but had simply overlooked it, even though it's covered in Sibley. (I should have taken more than a second look – maybe 69 of them – before compiling that list.)
• A Third Look at the Last Ten Years (http://mbwbirds.com/last-ten-years-ii.html)
In my comments updating the Hindsight piece on sparrows from 2000, I mentioned the recent discovery of an apparent Saltmarsh Sparrow specimen record which seemed to be from Minnesota. It turns out, though, that the range maps and Minnesota checklist didn't need an overhaul after all. Indeed, while this sparrow was correctly identified, a second look later revealed the specimen was mislabeled and actually collected in another state. (But think of the fun we could have had combing the marshes around Salt Lake in Lac Qui Parle County looking for them!)
• A Second Look at Grouse (http://mbwbirds.com/grouse.html)
The section on Greater Prairie-Chickens mentioned that "until recently" a small remnant population existed in a limited area of Cass, Hubbard, and Wadena counties. While it's true they seem to have died out in Cass and Hubbard, some were still persisting in Wadena County as of April 2010 at the Burgen Lake Wildlife Management Area lek along County Road 18.
Incidentally, do you know folks who are members of both the Minnesota Prairie Chicken Society and Pheasants Forever? They may need to reevaluate their priorities. There's evidence that Ring-necked Pheasants (an introduced non-native species, by the way) can negatively impact prairie-chickens by laying eggs in their nests. Pheasants Forever's efforts to conserve grasslands habitat should be applauded, but to encourage increasing pheasant populations where prairie-chickens occur is a mission of dubious merit.
• A Second Look at Meadowlarks (http://mbwbirds.com/meadowlarks.html)
A bit of clarification in the wording might be helpful in the opening paragraphs of the Range and Season section:
As meadowlark names suggest, there are some places in Minnesota during the breeding season where you're pretty safe assigning an ID to a meadowlark based on range alone. With a few isolated exceptions, the Eastern Meadowlark is essentially absent in summer west of a north-south line drawn from Warroad to Fairmont, so any meadowlark farther west should be a Western.
There's no place, however, where you can make a similar assumption about the Eastern Meadowlark from the map alone, since Westerns breed throughout Minnesota except in Lake and Cook counties, where (except on rare occasions) neither meadowlark normally summers.
That line from Warroad to Fairmont should not be interpreted as a straight and impermeable barrier keeping all Eastern Meadowlarks on the right side of the map. There are places in Clearwater and eastern Becker counties, along the Minnesota River west to the Redwood Falls area, near Windom, and perhaps elsewhere where there have been recent, credible sightings – and listenings – of Easterns in summer.
And in northeastern Minnesota, Western Meadowlarks casually (perhaps rarely) summer in Lake County, but Cook County records then are practically non-existent. Summering Eastern Meadowlarks in Cook County are similarly scarce, while in Lake County they are rare (or at best locally uncommon) most years. In any event, summer records in these counties are so infrequent that no assumptions can be made about the ID of any meadowlark that fails to speak up.
• A Third Look at Swans (http://mbwbirds.com/swans-ii.html)
Okay, I admit it. This article with its swan photos was guilty of doing exactly what I had been so critical of in the previous Hindsight installment, "A Second Look at Photographs" (The Loon 78:172-175):
Over the years I have repeatedly found books and journal articles on bird ID with too many photo captions or text references which are inconsistent with the printed image.
Despite my whining, I included the photo labeled as Figure 4 whose caption advised you to consider the nostril position in deciding on this swan's identity. No nostril is visible, of course, on the printed page in The Loon, even though you can see it in the original image. If it's any consolation, though, at least the nostril position of another swan shown in Figure 5 is visible, just as the caption calls your attention to.
(So, is this the level that birders have sunk to? There's this large, spectacular swan in front of you, and all you're trying to do is see its nostrils?)
• A Second Look at Jaegers (http://mbwbirds.com/jaegers.html)
After this article opened with telling examples of accomplished birders failing to cope with some difficult jaeger IDs, it went on to say:
Clearly, when it comes to jaegers, even those with lots of experience are often befuddled. So what chance do we have in Minnesota, where jaegers typically appear only as occasional September specks on the Lake Superior horizon? None of us can claim to be experts, especially when it comes to non-adult jaegers, and all of us need to exercise extreme caution when reporting anything above the “jaeger, sp.” level.
Three years later, some excellent jaeger-watching opportunities in the fall of 2010 in Duluth-Superior occurred, primarily at Wisconsin Point. But confusion still persisted – and not just with the issue of jaeger ID, but also with where they were in the first place. (Some internet postings and photo captions suggested that birds were on the Minnesota side of the state line, even though they were only sighted in Wisconsin.) But once the geography was straightened out, the identity of some of the jaegers was not.
Most of the difficulty seemed to involve this one juvenile jaeger, which many saw and called a Pomarine. Point-blank photos, however, revealed it to be a Parasitic. To his credit, one of those initially in the Pomarine camp took a second look at his photos, had some second thoughts, and sent them on to Klaus Malling Olsen, author of Skuas and Jaegers of the World. Sure enough, Olsen confirmed it as a Parasitic, listing the following features visible in the photos to support that ID:
– The relatively small head and slender bill;
– Overall size smaller than Ring-billed Gull (Pomarines would look about equal in size to the gull);
– The overall shape with a slender body and rather narrow "arm" – i.e., inner half of wing (the Pomarine more powerful with fuller body, in which center of gravity often lies at hindbelly, and broader base of the arm);
–Central pairs of tail feathers are slightly rounded, but too narrow to fit Pomarine;
– A dark cap with paler nape (in juvenile Pomarine, the head/neck looks more uniform with less tendency to show a pale nape);
– Inconspicuous pale mottling on the rump (not the distinct barring of Pomarine, which looks similar to American Herring Gull).
Note again that several birders had called it a Pomarine, but, as that "Under Suspicion" article pointed out: "Having multiple witnesses did not ensure accurate identifications." It's just too easy and natural for birders to flock to the scene of a reported rarity (which may have been in error), make an ID based solely on what they expect to see, and perhaps perpetuate the confusion. Again, the credibility of a sighting is not necessarily enhanced by lots of observers being involved.
• A Second Look at Hybrids and Escapes (http://mbwbirds.com/escapes-hybrids.html)
In the last three years, some more confirmed or presumed examples of the hybrid combinations on this list have been noted and documented in Minnesota: e.g., Snow x Ross's goose, Common Goldeneye x Hooded Merganser, Western x Clark's grebe, an escaped hybrid falcon (mentioned above), Herring x Glaucous gull (and possibly other combinations in Duluth), Spotted x Eastern towhee, and Bullock's x Baltimore oriole.
In addition, adding to the two presumed hybrid Western x Eastern wood-pewee records cited from Roseau and Jackson counties, I was involved in two other unresolved sightings. First, a group of five wood-pewees was found in Norman County in June 2009 which included one or two of them giving Western-like (or hybrid) vocalizations – see The Loon 82:6. And there was a frustratingly silent wood-pewee with a mostly dark lower mandible, photographed in September 2010 in Polk County, showing characteristics suggestive of a Western, or at least a hybrid, but it stubbornly refused to say anything.
• A Fourth Look at the Internet (http://mbwbirds.com/internet-iii.html)
A sobering and cautionary tale was presented about several acknowledged bird ID experts failing to correctly identify a rather straightforward Semipalmated Sandpiper shown in photos on the Frontiers of Field Identification listserve. Well, it seems the collective knowledge of the now-alleged experts (note I don't call them "acknowledged" any more) had not improved as of last summer when it comes to shorebirds.
If you look at the August 2010 Frontiers archives (http://www.surfbirds.com/maillist/?id=62), you'll see that a basic-plumaged Sanderling – another familiar and widespread shorebird – managed to confound some of these same experts. Finally, someone dismayed by all the misconceptions being posted, wrote:
I remain unconvinced about such arguments like
- Sanderlings do not feed joint-deep in water
- Sanderlings do not submerge their heads
- Sanderlings do not have long primary projection
- Sanderlings do not have long tibia.
I have already given links to photographs that refute all this. As for bill shape: Dave writes that the bill looks too heavy for Sanderling, while Kevin thought it was too thin – so which one is it?
It was disconcerting enough to read that so many were unfamiliar with Sanderling feeding behavior, primary projection, leg length, and bill shape, and that photographs contrary to their beliefs were apparently disregarded. But the confusion continued with other Frontiers shorebird discussions in just that single month as it became evident that Western, White-rumped, Baird's, and even another Semipalmated Sandpiper presented additional difficulties among those who should know better.
The point here is that it's understandable if we mere mortals struggle with identifying shorebirds when the experts are doing the same. Granted, the likes of sparrows, raptors, meadowlarks, swans, jaegers, flycatchers, and others present plenty of ID challenges, but it's now clear that shorebirds can be every bit as daunting.
* * *
Readers might also recall I commented in Part One that feedback from "Birding By Hindsight" readers has been relatively rare over the years. But I do especially remember at least one review from a reader. It was a message a few years back from Muriel from Illinois who wanted to say how she "laughed and chuckled all the way through" one of my pieces about dowitchers. Amazingly, someone actually related to my sense of humor. By the way, Muriel added that she was 84, so perhaps that age group represents Hindsight's ideal demographic.
So here's to Muriel: I'll bet she's still going strong and – unlike some much younger readers – has a sense of humor, and she wouldn't mind a bit if I kidded her about, say, birds with ivory bills or occupants of ivory towers.